Travis Muchow was more than just an officer of the law, he was an officer of the community. Among his colleagues, Muchow was well respected for his ability to empathize with the community and relate that back to the rest of the department.
After spending more than 15 years at the Le Sueur Police Department, Muchow, only 41 years old, handed in his resignation this spring following a brain cancer diagnosis, which restricted his ability to do the required work and pushed him to focus on family.
Diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive forms, Muchow’s condition is very likely terminal. His life expectancy could range from months to years.
His presence on the force will be missed.
“Travis has been essential in teaching other officers, including myself, the importance of empathy in police work and how it can positively change any situation,” said Le Sueur Police Captain Aaron Thieke at an April 27 City Council meeting honoring Muchow for his years of service. “It’s for this reason that Travis has become an irreplaceable asset to the Le Sueur Police Department.”
Becoming an officer
Before Muchow planted his roots in Le Sueur, he lived and grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with an older brother and sister. While in South Dakota, he would earn his general education and criminal justice degree from Sioux Falls’ Kilian Community College.
Fresh out of college, Muchow wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. His girlfriend and now wife, Monica, pushed him to consider law enforcement, believing that he had the makings of a good police officer.
“He’s always been a fair person, very authentic and fair.” said Monica. “I just thought it would be a good profession for him, because he likes structure and for things to be orderly, and he actually didn’t mind customer service in college. That aspect becomes a big part of law enforcement, of course.”
Muchow decided to follow Monica’s recommendation and would receive his law enforcement certificate in 2003. It was a highly competitive field at the time and Muchow spent 9 months working security at Treasure Island Resort and Casino while sending out applications.
Eventually, his efforts paid off, and Muchow would join the Le Sueur Police Department and a community which would become his home for the next 15 years.
An empathetic officer
When Muchow joined the Le Sueur Police Department, he established himself as an officer who would treat situations with fairness and empathy. His attitude toward policing has earned him not just respect from friends and colleagues, but even people he’s arrested.
“He had a unique ability to empathize with the community he served,” said Captain Thieke. “Travis can approach a serious problem and not only see it from his perspective, but he has the distinct ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes and see issues from their point of view.”
Muchow said that when he’s responding to a situation, it’s important that he can develop an understanding of the people involved.
“A long time ago, it was explained to me you have the type A cops and type B cops,” said Muchow. “The type A, if you were to describe it, would be like the alpha male mentality. Then there’s the type B, which is ‘Let’s work through this problem.’ I have found it easier to be that guy, be more empathetic. Understand where they’re coming from, even though they’re doing wrong.”
That sense of fairness had endeared him to his community. So has his his happy-go-lucky attitude and sense of humor, as described by his colleagues.
“I think people had great trust in Travis, because he’s an active member of the community and they knew him personally as well as professionally,” said Thieke. “He was always good at making us laugh. He could bring a lighter atmosphere to serious situations.”
Fostering relationships with his fellow officers and the community became an important part of the job for Muchow. Initially, he dreamed of working for a large police department, like Minneapolis or St. Paul, but he realized that he couldn’t build the small town relationships he learned to love if he moved.
“After a few years, I recognized that you don’t get to meet people in the community and maintain a trust and relationship with them,” said Muchow. “And I liked the guys that I worked with, so it was hard to leave that.”
But policing a community as small as Le Sueur has still proven to be an adventure. Muchow has responded to plenty of situations over the years, from basic patrol to investigations to being a first responder. One of his most memorable calls was when he had to wrangle horses that had escaped from a farm.
“I think if I had gone to a bigger city or a bigger department, I would have missed out on a lot of that,” said Muchow.
Unfortunately, Muchow was forced to leave the Le Sueur Police Department sooner than he had planned.
In November 2019, Muchow started having trouble speaking while working a case. He said he chalked it up to stress at the time, but his doctor recommended he visit Mayo Clinic in Mankato for a scan. The clinic found a brain tumor around 2.5 cm in size. The tumor led to a diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer which originates in the brain or the spine.
Muchow has since had a resection surgery had some 30 rounds of radiation treatment as well as chemotherapy. It’s an aggressive condition which typically recurs in a few months, even with surgery and other forms of treatment.
A possible recurrence of the cancer has already been detected, but Monica said that it wasn’t certain. The area of concern could also be tissue scarring from radiation treatment. Besides some fatigue and minor tremors, Muchow is currently holding up well and can enjoy his favorite activities such as motorcycling, four wheeling and camping.
But there are no sure things going forward for the family.
One of the methods Muchow is using to treat the cancer is an optune. The device is a portable field generator carried in a backpack or bag, which transmits wave-like electric fields to the brain through transducer arrays, bandage-like electronic transmitters attached to the head.
These electronic fields interfere with the division of tumor cells, causing tumor growth to slow down or stop. Tumor cells may even be destroyed through this method. Because the device must be carried and charged, Muchow can’t respond to situations like he used to and had to retire.
“If I wouldn’t have to wear this device, I could about guarantee you I would be at work,” said Muchow.
While the cancer has stopped him from continuing his work as an officer, it hasn’t stopped him from living his life. He is spending his retirement making the most of each day with Monica and their son Braden, who is 4 years old.
“My wife and I had a conversation about it,” said Muchow. “And she goes, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life and ride your motorcycle?’ And I said, ‘You know, that’s a great idea. So I’m spending time with my kid, riding the motorcycle when I can and spending time with family.’”
Physical health is one of the utmost concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for elderly and vulnerable populations, but what can sometimes be overlooked during this public health crisis is mental and spiritual health.
Central Health Care nursing facility in Le Center provided a spiritual remedy to residents and staff on June 18, when Father James Stiles of St. Mary’s Catholic Church delivered a prayer of protection, requesting that God keep those at Central Health Care safe from the coronavirus.
“We felt that our residents and families were needing more spiritual support during the COVID virus,” said Central Health Care Activities Director Tammy Plonsky. “We were feeling that all the changes and the isolation from the families to the friends to even their nurses, doctors and we felt that extra spiritual support could help us as a community.”
For many residents at Central Health Care, the coronavirus has made life a lot more stressful. Due to health restrictions, the facility cannot accept in-person visits. Residents still have the means to contact their loved ones through calls, video chats, mail and even visits through the window, but being able to sit with and hug one’s family and friends is a privilege residents don’t have. The one exception is compassion visits, where residents and family are allowed to visit only in the most serious circumstances such as a critical illness or family tragedy. Those same restrictions have also limited spiritual visits.
“They really miss seeing Father Stiles and the other pastor and the reverend that can’t come in our building,” said Plonsky. “Even though we do online services, we do get the bulletins, we do get the scriptures, but it’s just not the same as shaking their hand, coming in and giving them their communion. We don’t have that anymore. For the residents it’s hard. Seeing him is what I think they are looking forward to and seeing that actual presence of spiritual support.”
It’s also a scary time for residents. Plonsky said that many were fearful of COVID-19, that someone they know could die or that they wouldn’t be able to see their families and loved ones again. Plonsky hoped that seeing Father Stiles again and receiving a blessing could assuage some of those fears.
When the day came for the prayer, Central Health Care went all out to make it memorable. Both residents and staffers gathered out with signs displaying positive messages. Families came to support their loved ones from inside their vehicles and with donations from four families, Central Health Care and Le Center Mexican Restaurant El Tacazo provided residents, families and staff with complementary lunches from a food truck.
Father Stiles arrived with a message about the importance of community and spiritual health. From a Bible, he read the story of Jesus healing the paralytic at Capernaum — in which a crowd of people carried a paralyzed man who could not get through the mass of people to Jesus. Once the man is before Jesus, he is cured of both his paralysis and his sins.
“Today is a good day to remember that we need to care for both body and soul, the whole person,” said Stiles. “This is the way we were created, this is the way God cares for us. Not only do we have our bruises taken care of and our wounds bandaged up and our bodies and so on, but our soul’s and heart’s deepest needs need to be met.”
“The other interesting thing about this story is that because this man was so sick he couldn’t actually bring himself to Jesus, he needed others to do it,” Stiles continued. “So this is also really important for us to remember because here we are, all of us carrying within ourselves something which needs to be healed … It’s important that we carry each other. We need each other in this.”
At the end of his sermon, Stiles led the attendees in a prayer for safety, for the families that gathered at Central Health Care, for families impacted by the coronavirus and the less fortunate. The group also prayed for the country with a rendition of the song “God Bless America.”
Le Sueur County is exploring cutting costs as coronavirus-related expenses remain uncertain.
In a budget discussion at the Board of Commissioners meeting on June 16, Le Sueur County Administrator Darrell Pettis said that 2020 will be “an extremely interesting, difficult year” to put a budget together. COVID-19 and a confluence of other factors have left the county in the dark on just how expensive operations will be next year.
One of the major unknowns is the tax impact of the coronavirus. As the county prepares for next year, there remains real uncertainty on how long the pandemic will continue, how case numbers will change, how long coronavirus-related restrictions will stay in place and how Le Sueur County residents will be financially impacted.
The county will also need to make a decision on whether the board will defer or delay the property tax payment deadline for the second half of the year. Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for counties, municipalities and school districts, which led the county to decline abating property taxes in the first half of the year. However, the issue may come up again in the fall with many business owners seeking economic relief in the wake of COVID-related devastation.
Coronavirus has also driven up county health care costs, between 6-8%. The impact of those costs on the county’s health care premium is still unknown. At the same time, state aid to the county is likely to fall. More than $1 million in state funding to county highway projects could be lost this year because state aid is funded through gas and sales taxes, which were down during the stay at home order.
In the middle of all this, the county is renegotiating labor contracts. All five of the county’s union contracts expire this year and will have to be renegotiated. The county is also in the process of implementing a new Classification and Compensation Plan, which will have to be negotiated with unions.
Because of these changes, the county’s cost of living adjustment (COLA) has not been set, but staff is anticipating a 1% increase. A 1% increase would add more than $170,000 in additional expenses, though some of that would be paid for through state and federal aid.
On top of that, the county needs to account for funds it took from the Road and Bridge Department to balance the 2020 budget last year.
What additional revenues the county could receive is also a mystery. CARES Act funding could be a great boon for the 2020 budget, and potentially 2021 as well, but the county still does not know how much aid they can receive from the legislation at this time.
Another potential source of revenue is the bonding bill to fund infrastructure spending, being considered by the state Legislature. The county has committed $300,000 to expand rural access to broadband internet and a bonding bill could subsidize the county’s efforts.
“If the Legislature passes a bonding bill this year, which is entirely possible … there may be some opportunities for the county to do some additional broadband projects,” said County Administrator Darrell Pettis. “Those will have to be funded and paid for if the county wants to participate in that. It doesn’t have to be a 2021 expense, but those expenses have to be paid.”
With so many questions, Pettis asked the commissioners to consider potential cost saving measures. The county was scheduled to remodel the courthouse, old jail and the highway building. Some of that infrastructure, like the highway building, is aging and in need of repair but the county will need to consider how to balance that with a potentially tighter budget. Pettis said the county could consider bonding for those projects if necessary.
Other options raised by Pettis could include implementing a sales tax for transportation, reducing staff hours and furloughing employees, cutting non-mandated services, keeping unfilled positions open, making no adjustment to COLA or putting equipment purchases on hold.
Commissioner Steve Rohlfing said that the county could explore putting more employees on telecommute and delivering services in a similar manner to how they’ve been managed while county offices were closed. This could also be an avenue to avoid remodeling.
“If you look at the building, they’re remodeling for phases two and three. It’s going to be interesting, because we have 91 employees and all of them are rotating shifts right now, so is brick and mortar really something we need space for anymore?” asked Rohlfing. “As a certain point, I think we need to be progressively cautious … As far as delivering services, I think we should be delivering services we need; we just need to change how we deliver those services. I think they’re doing that now, and we see that it works.”
Budget planning is in its infancy currently, and the county won’t have a preliminary budget finalized until the fall. As the county considers its next steps, Commissioner John King requested that department heads bring in two separate budget plans for their departments — a budget with no increased expenses from last year and a budget with a 3% increase in expenses to account for added health care and salary expenditures.
“Because there are so many unknowns that could negatively impact us … Just for one year, I think we really need to be static in our spending — not really pursuing any expansion or spending,” said King. “Just for a year, until we can get a better handle on what the impact on our income versus our expenses is going to be.”